Why do some instruments transpose?

I find it difficult to explain to the uninitiated the concept of “transposing” instruments. The what is confusing. The why is worse.

To get the what across, I usually have to resort to an example: “Okay, so it works like this. If I am playing an alto saxophone, and I see an F-sharp on the page, I think ‘F-sharp,’ and do the correct fingering for F-sharp, and then I blow into the instrument and an A comes out.”

Sometimes a visual representation is useful (here are transpositions for some common woodwind instruments):

Instruments Written pitch Sounding pitch
Down an octave

Up an octave
Clarinet in E-flat
Down a m3

Up a m3
Flute, Oboe
Clarinet in B-flat, Soprano saxophone
Up a M2

Down a M2
Clarinet in A
Up a m3

Down a m3
Alto flute
Up a P4

Down a P4
English horn
Up a P5

Down a P5
Alto saxophone
Up a M6

Down a M6
Up an octave

Down an octave
Tenor saxophone, Bass clarinet
Up a M9

Down a M9
Baritone saxophone, Contrabass clarinet in E-flat
Up an octave and a M6

Down an octave and a M6

This system is, shall we say, “difficult:”

  • Composer/arranger/copyist: “What was that transposition for alto flute again? A fourth, I think, but was it a fourth down or a fourth up? Or was it a fifth?”
  • Conductor: “Let’s see, the alto saxophones have an E and a B, the tenor has a D-sharp, and the baritone has a D-natural. So that chord would be, um…”
  • Educator: “Okay, everybody play a B-flat scale. I mean, ‘concert’ B-flat. So C for clarinets and tenor saxophones, G for altos and baritones, E-flat for English horn… or is it F for English horn?…”
  • Gigging musician: “I need to buy the fakebook in E-flat. Hmm, and I guess I also need the B-flat, in case I play clarinet on anything. I wonder if I’ll need the C book for flute, too? Wait, let me make a phone call.”

(And that’s just the system used for the modern band and orchestral instruments!)

So why are we stuck with this bizarre system? The transposing system does actually have some benefits, though really only to the players of transposing instruments:

  • A clarinetist, for example, only needs to learn one set of fingerings, and can use them on all members of the clarinet family. Additionally, all members of the clarinet family read from parts written in treble clef, even the very low-sounding members. Thus, a clarinetist can associate a certain notated pitch with a certain fingering, no matter how large or small the instrument. The same is true for all major modern woodwind families.
  • There is a certain degree of fingering similarity across woodwind families. All major modern woodwinds have a “natural” scale that begins with seven fingers down (three middle fingers of left hand, three middle fingers plus pinky of right hand), and more or less proceeds diatonically up a major scale by lifting one finger at a time, starting from the lowest one (RH pinky). For flutes, oboes, clarinets in the upper register, and saxophones, this is a written C scale. For bassoons and clarinets in the low register, this is a written F scale.
  • In general, this means that “easier” keys (with fewer sharps and flats) use simpler and more intuitive fingering schemes.

In some cases, instruments families with members in different keys may have arisen to simplify technical matters: early clarinets, for example, weren’t well suited to chromatic playing, so instruments of different sizes were necessary to make it possible to play in any key. In other cases, artistic choices may have been a driving force: tenor saxophones were originally available in both C and B-flat, with the larger B-flat intended for military band use and the C (now known as the “C melody” saxophone) meant for orchestral playing. But orchestral composers who wrote for the tenor (such as Ravel and Prokofiev) seem to have preferred the B-flat. The C instrument never caught on in any standard ensemble instrumentation.

The canon of repertoire has also perhaps helped determine which instruments have staying power. For example, an argument could be made that modern clarinets in B-flat and clarinets in A are so similar as to be redundant, but composers have written widely for both over several centuries, and so both instruments remain in common use. On the other hand, the nearly-obsolete piccolo in D-flat, once common in wind band music, has now essentially been replaced by the piccolo in C (difficulties of the Stars and Stripes Forever trio notwithstanding); modern editions of wind band works from the D-flat piccolo era include transposed (er, de-transposed) parts for the C instrument.

Pros and cons aside, we appear to be stuck with this system for the foreseeable future. This means that musically-literate people need to know transpositions for at least the most common instruments (woodwinds and others). Remember that the transposition includes an interval (such as “minor third” for E-flat clarinet) and a direction which changes depending on which kind of transposition you are doing (write E-flat clarinet parts down a minor third from where you want them to sound, and they sound up a minor third from where they are written).


6 responses to “Why do some instruments transpose?”

  1. But what about trumpets in B-flat which play a B-flat without any valves, and the trombone/baritone, etc in C which also play a B-flat in first position/open?

    1. Another complication of transposition, baritones are technically “Bb” instruments, but read concert-pitch bass clef. Baritones/Euphoniums can read treble clef, Bb-transposed parts (essentially trumpet fingerings), or they can read bass clef and tenor clef in concert pitch. So the “open” notes are C (etc) in treble clef, or Bb (etc) in bass and tenor clef.

      Similarly, the brass instruments get things like double horns (Bb and F horn together), and tubas are commonly found in C, Bb, and F, and C trumpets are the preferred choice for most orchestral parts. Yay transposition! :)

      1. WHY?? Why oh why are euphoniums & baritones taught a different set of fingerings / taught to play in concert rather than in Bb like trumpets? My open fundamental on trumpet is Bb which I call C, and my daughter’s fundamental on euphonium is the SAME base note – Bb – but she calls it Bb… same note! so why are the tenor/bass instruments learning to read concert pitch while trumpets / soprano brass are reading in the transposed keys? to what end I ask??

  2. SMVance Avatar

    When playing alto flute [“in G”] from treble clef, I use transposed fingerings [e. g. D is three fingers, left hand] ; up an octave from bass clef, I imagine soprano clef and add a flat or drop a sharp.

  3. Peter Drake Avatar
    Peter Drake

    Okay – given that lots of instruments have to transpose, the question now is why are they pitched in the keys they are pitched in? Most common keys are Bb, Eb, with D, A and F making up most of the rest. Given that there are 12 keys in which an instrument could be pitched, why is that they are in one of the five keys given above? Is it a mechanical effect? Please explain…

  4. CrankyBeach Avatar

    I am a flutist with perfect pitch. The few times I was asked to play an alto flute part, I would finger the notes I saw in the music, and completely ignored the notes coming out of the flute. It’s very confusing for me to hear notes other than what is written on the page. Another time when I dabbled briefly in baritone horn, I chose to play the bass clef parts because those are in concert key, even though I don’t read bass clef well at all.

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